Red Cross Upgrades HF Radios with ALE
Tuesday, April 13, 2010 | Comments
 
By Susan Sheppard
 
The American Red Cross, in partnership with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (International Federation), assists other Red Cross organizations when a large-scale disaster happens. The assistance may include financial help, relief supplies and technical expertise, including sending people with highly qualified skills needed for that particular set of circumstances. Maintaining an active roster of volunteers from diverse backgrounds, the American Red Cross can send disaster specialists with a wide variety of skill sets to address needs identified by the International Federation and other Red Cross partners for disaster response.
 
During the long-term recovery process from the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, the need was identified to establish a radio network that the Indonesian Red Cross could use during future disasters to communicate between branches across the territory of Aceh when other lines of communications were down. Glen Bradley, a retired electronics engineer for U.S. government projects, knew that high frequency (HF) radios are used for this kind of long-distance connectivity. Bradley’s and other volunteers’ knowledge helped establish a disaster response network in Sumatra and train volunteers on how to use it.
 
During a disaster response, along with relief items to provide for people’s basic needs, the International Federation also provides information technology and telecommunications (IT/telecoms) emergency response units to set up communications systems in support of disaster operations when the affected nation doesn’t have the capability to do so or has severe infrastructure damage.
 
In addition to other basic telecommunications capabilities, these IT/telecoms units provide HF radio communications for disaster response operations. The HF systems are often the only communications capability that is possible within some remote areas where there may be little or no telecommunications infrastructure available.
 
Volunteer Needs
Within the International Federation, the Red Cross societies in Denmark, United States, Spain and New Zealand have been tasked with setting up IT/telecoms emergency response units. All units have Codan HF radio equipment. Familiarity with equipment is a key to the Red Cross IT/telecoms units’ success. In nearly all cases, the people who are operating the radio systems aren’t radio operators; they are volunteers who come from many walks of life and must learn to use the radios as quickly and efficiently as possible.
 
“In situations where the emergency response unit is coming in after a natural disaster, the Red Cross unit will set up or re-establish a radio network and then train in-country volunteers to run it after we are gone,” Bradley said.
 
The Red Cross IT/telecoms units are equipped to respond quickly after a disaster happens. The unit volunteers are often given just 48 hours to prepare for travel to a disaster area. They have a standardized list of items that they deploy with, including radios, antennas, generators, tents and other supplies to sustain themselves for up to four weeks.
 
“We have all kinds of equipment that we pack up to hit the road with, and we carry Codan radios,” Bradley said. “We sometimes leave behind the radios and equipment for the Red Cross national society in the country we are working in for future disaster response. So the radio equipment that we leave must be easy to use and automate many functions. We frequently replenish our supply of HF radios.”
 
Upgrade Benefits
Recently, the International Federation upgraded its Codan radios with new functionality to ensure that inexperienced radio operators can use the communications system to its full potential. Automatic link establishment (ALE) is an optional capability for HF radios that allows the radio to automate certain functions that previously were initiated by the radio operator using the existing Selcall features.
 
Bradley was instrumental in pursuing the upgrade path for converting the radio networks to an ALE capability from a Selcall capability. “When I first went to Sumatra to install the Codan HF radio network, I became convinced that multiple frequencies, great variances in distances, and the fact that operators change out all the time, made moving to an ALE capability ideal for their network,” Bradley said.
 
ALE offers features that are extremely important to Red Cross disaster response operations. “There are many functions of ALE that make it much easier to train new people on radio operation. With any HF radio, you have to select frequencies, and that selection is dependent on time of day, difference between stations, sun spot numbers and other factors. ALE is a mechanism that automatically selects the proper frequency.”
 
Trying various frequencies takes time and effort, and an inexperienced operator might not know to go to another frequency. But ALE automatically selects the optimum frequency and assures link establishment without operator interaction.
 
“Once we set up an ALE network, it greatly simplifies the training and operator expertise that’s involved. You can pick up the radio handset and operate almost like a cell phone. When you have established a link, it is a higher quality communications link, which means the operator can communicate more easily and can focus on their disaster relief efforts rather than the radio operation,” Bradley said.
 
Other ALE features that improve operator confidence include alphanumeric naming rather than numbers, improved link quality and useful network management capabilities that allow users to monitor distant radios and to add new stations remotely. The ability to add radio functionality over the air is important in a disaster situation because volunteers may add radios frequently.
 
Next Steps
After attending Codan training, Bradley made a presentation to the International Federation in Geneva last year regarding the benefits of ALE. As a result, the IT/telecom standardization organization for the International Federation agreed to provisionally adopt the radios with ALE. The American Red Cross is working on an implementation plan for installing disaster ALE networks, and Codan agreed to provide the capability to all International Federation radios at no additional cost.
 
The International Federation will upgrade radio disaster networks to ALE once the implementation plan has been accepted at its next IT/telecom standardization meeting. “Once the implementation plan is done, and everyone is trained, the emergency response units may be called on to assist other Red Cross national societies with upgrading their existing radio networks to use ALE.
 
“We had tried to set up an ALE network in Sumatra but we didn’t have the experience at that time, so we requested Codan training in ALE,” Bradley said. “We learned enough new critical information in the first 10 minutes alone to make the effort a success.”
 
The team said it’s well equipped to prepare an ALE implementation plan for the International Federation, with hopes of benefiting the entire global Red Cross network in future disasters. 
 

 
Susan Sheppard is president of Certa Cito Marketing Communications and has specialized in defense, government and technology marketing and media strategies for more than 25 years.  
 
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Comments
On 4/20/17, Richard Green said:
I have been an ARC radio volunteer and am interested to help again. Please send me information necessary to establish a communications system for the southwest ARC system covering six southern Washington state counties.
I am a Washington Emergency Worker ID 3603. I am currently a member of the Clark County ARES RACES group and a volunteer radio team member at the Legacy Hospital System.
My Ham call is N7CUD and my E-mail can go through at N7CUD@arrl.net.


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